Climate shift favors extreme wildfires in US

MICHIGAN STATE (US) — Climate change may be contributing to the larger and more destructive wildfires that are scorching vast areas of the Western US, a new analysis shows.

Researchers examined current and future climate patterns projected by multiple regional climate models and their effect on the spread of fire in a mountainous region that includes Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. The study focused on the month of August, the most active month for wildfires in the western United States.

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“Our findings suggest that future lower atmospheric conditions may favor larger and more extreme wildfires, posing an additional challenge to fire and forest management,” says Lifeng Luo, assistant professor of geography at Michigan State University.

August 2012 saw 3.6 million acres burn in the region, the most of any August since 2000. However, there were only 6,948 fires in August 2012, the second fewest in that 12-year time frame, meaning the fires were much larger.

Large wildfires are mainly driven by natural factors including the availability of fuel (vegetation), precipitation, wind, and the location of lightning strikes.

In particular, exceptionally dry and unstable conditions in the earth’s lower atmosphere will continue contributing to “erratic and extreme fire behavior.”

“Global climate change may have a significant impact on these factors, thus affecting potential wildfire activity across many parts of the world,” according to the study, published in Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology.

Although not included in the new study, the recent Arizona wildfire that began with a lightning strike and killed 19 firefighters was an unpredictable, fast-spreading blaze, according to a published report.

Source: Michigan State University